JEFF BROUWS: “It Don’t Exist – The Impact of Sprawl and Suburban Build-out on Inner City America” (2009)

“It Don’t Exist”, The Impact of Sprawl and Suburban Build-out on Inner City America

By Jeff Brouws (lecture delivered at SPE’s conference in Dallas), March 28, 2009

I’ve been photographing the American cultural landscape for the past twenty years. Utilizing different series that I’ve done involving the everyday urban and suburban places we encounter, I’ll strive to make visual and verbal connections between these overlapping territories of American life while sticking to our theme of how sprawl has affected inner city environments.

Along with my other work, I’ve been specifically exploring inner city America since 1995, documenting urban landscapes impacted by racial segregation, white flight, and deindustrialization in the northeast. For many Americans these landscapes — mostly defined by abandonment, poverty and minority populations — don’t exist; they’re below our collective radar. Over this time-period I’ve come to believe that all photographs can have a social and political meaning when viewed within a certain context. Feeling kinship with the New Topographics Movement from the 1970s that documented the impact of the constructed suburban world on the natural one, I wanted to invert that premise — looking at the urban core instead of the periphery — and ask how suburbanization after World War II affected city centers. What were the consequences as we went from an urban, city-dwelling lifestyle — based on mass transportation, high density living, and production — to a suburban, car-dependent, low-density lifestyle based on consumption?

I. Transportation Modes – The Rise of the Interstates

Prior to the 1930s there was no organized infrastructure of highways across America; unmarked roads and scarce services for the motorist were the norm. As automobile usage exploded in the United States a cartel of lobbying interests including the oil, tire, auto makers, insurance companies, land developers and the Federal Government came to the realization that roads and freeways were a vital component of infrastructure that would help foster suburban development.

When Eisenhower signed into law the The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act in 1956, construction of a freeway system linking all major cities began, fueled by this idea of growth. In addition, Eisenhower’s experience as a young soldier during WWI informed his commitment to the freeway system. According to Phil Patton’s book The Open Road, Eisenhower had witnessed how inefficient road systems hampered troop and supply movements and reasoned that in the case of an impending nuclear attack — this was the Cold War era after all — urbanites could exit cities quickly with freeways in place. Essentials necessary to sustain them could be transported everywhere over these arterial roads as well. In this way, decentralization became a guiding principle for not only developers who owned land on the periphery they wished to sell, but for a federal government who in the final analysis thought a low-density lifestyle, dispersed population and scattered infrastructure would be less vulnerable to a paralyzing nuclear attack.

Another factor to consider in any discussion about sprawl: urban development between 1890 and 1930 had been characterized by centralization as Americans moved from rural environments into cities. Crowding occurred and this, too, became a factor encouraging decentralization — movement of human beings, materials, capital, and goods away from the city center. Freeways, cars and trucks coupled with the aforementioned political theories and social relations were all important agents fostering this spatial rearrangement of the American landscape, a rearranging that would have devastating effects on the urban core.

Freeways also helped the trucking industry take freight away from railroads, railroads that couldn’t deliver goods everywhere highways went. Freeways also fostered the growth of national chain stores. These chain stores used the “freeway” — a form of cheap transportation across vast distances — as a circulatory system to distribute consumer goods. These eventualities fueled the growth of sprawl.

On an emotional level freeways had an unintended consequence on the American psyche, contributing to an atomization and isolation of the population, making us a nation of lonely drivers who perhaps wondered whether our passion for movement on these ribbons of highway made us free or simply enslaved us to a myth of (upward) mobility.

The Demise of Railroads and Mass Transit


Railroads in the urban core were also impacted by sprawl’s growth. Railroad terminals around the country lay fallow, suffering at the hands of suburban build out, as more and more Americans moved away from the locked-in, scheduled routes of the passenger train and chose instead the supposed independence, privacy, and freedom of movement the automobile engendered.

Many inner-city urban freight yards now lay dormant after a 30-year decline in manufacturing. Line side industries previously generated boxcars filled with American products. No more. Freight trains today consist of containers filled with goods produced overseas. The container, loaded onto a ship in China, gets transported across the sea, unloaded onto a railroad flat car here, which is then moved to an inter-modal freight yard on the metropolitan periphery.

Off-loaded as a truck trailer it’s driven to a distribution center geographically situated in the middle of the country. Eventually it ends its journey parked at a Wal-Mart loading dock for its “just in time” delivery. Much of the freight forwarding and handling that use to take place in city centers has been eliminated. Thus we see how mechanization, automation, rationalization and decentralization are primary forces shaping the growth of sprawl.

II. Industrial Zones

Besides giving facts and figures about the socio-economic and historical relationships between city and sprawl environments, perhaps a brief discussion about urban morphology will aid us in understanding what happened spatially and architecturally in and around inner city America as suburban build-out occurred. First we’ll look at a few specific industrialized and commercialized zones that were commonplace in many mid-western and northeastern cities.

Warehouse Districts


In the late 19th century as cities grew, different types of business activity like retailing, wholesaling, manufacturing, and office activities were confined to separate areas of the city. Warehouse districts were no exception and were usually located adjacent to transportation systems. In the early 19th century these systems of transport were river networks, which became railroad networks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the warehouse district neatly integrated into rail lines this kind of urban district was a classic railroad landscape characterized by railroad spurs and mainlines directly adjacent to warehouses, factories, meatpacking districts, and stockyards.

Consumer goods had to be stored at, and shipped from, central warehouse districts because of this transportation configuration. With the advent of the Interstates and growth of sprawl freight shifted from trains to trucks: trucks could deliver goods to more places more efficiently. All of a sudden distribution points became decentralized, could be located anywhere, and these types of multi-storied urban warehouse districts fell into disuse and were supplanted by long horizontal buildings on the periphery which we now call big box stores. As you can imagine freeways and railroads now mostly bypass urban warehouse districts.

Grain Elevator Districts


Another common morphology in the industrial city was the grain elevator district like the one in Buffalo, New York—which at one time was the largest grain port in the world. Architecturally, these buildings played a key role in the development of modernism: I refer you to Reyner Banham’s Concrete Atlantis for the fascinating story of how German architect Erich Mendelsohn’s photographs of these elevators from 1920 circulated around Europe and influenced Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier. Despite their historic significance, with a downturn in business these terminal grain elevators fell into abandonment after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, which completely cut Buffalo off in the shipping chain; the grain boats could bypass the city then much like the trucks bypassing the warehouses on the freeways now.

While the grain transshipment business was ending, Buffalo’s animal feed industry was in a similar state of decline; there are feed and cereal mills within this zone as well. Between 1955 and 1970, decentralization brought a virtual halt to animal feed ingredients being shipped to Buffalo’s mills for processing. Instead, smaller mills constructed within trucking distance of the regions in which cattle, hogs, and horses consumed the animal feed became normative. With the feed industry gone, Buffalo suffered another stinging blow to its economy and a new round of job losses.

As you can see: ideas like standardization, economies of scale, mechanization, lower transportation costs, elongated supply chains, and the decentralization of manufacturing plants — which were all things that affected Buffalo’s grain and milling industry too — are the same processes that informed the spread of sprawl.

With the demise of not only the grain trade, but the steel, auto and railroad businesses too, Buffalo now has about 7,000 homes awaiting demolition in residential neighborhoods, former housing for workers who don’t live there anymore. This leads us to ponder other points about the inner city / sprawl dichotomy: Buffalo, along with Detroit lost 1/3 of its population between 1950 and 1970 with a similar increase in the suburbs; in 1959 33% of the American workforce was involved in manufacturing; in 2009 that figure is 12 percent. In the same time span, conversely, the percentage of service sector jobs increased by a similar amount. Many people who use to work in manufacturing are now employed as service workers out in the suburbs.

Steel Mills


This is an LTV steel fabrication plant being dismantled in Cleveland in 2004. The demise of this plant and many others across the country are the result of outsourcing, globalization, corporate takeovers, and flagging unionism — all structural elements of a political economy that also informs sprawl. Two years after shooting this image, developers reconfigured this part of the Cuyahoga Valley into a shopping mall anchored by a Target and Home Depot. The name of the shopping center? The Steelyard Mall. Joel Garreau in his book Edge City called this tactic — “to name a place for what is no longer there” — typical of developers. Many big box stores locate themselves on former brownfields (toxic industrial sites) because the land is cheap and the government often turns a blind eye toward remediation. It’s also interesting to note that corporations like Home Depot and Target are now making incursions into inner city areas as suburban land becomes too expensive. So this image represents a flipside to the equation we’re discussing: the periphery is migrating to the interior.

Auto Plants


Abandoned manufacturing plant in mixed-use neighborhood, Detroit, Michigan 2006

The same forces shaping suburbanization (and later globalization) began to impact Detroit’s auto industry in the early 1950s. Many car manufacturers started to decentralize operations, moving front offices to the suburbs. Also, in an effort to destabilize the power of the unions (with a divide and conquer strategy), Ford and General Motors started moving parts of the manufacturing process out of urban areas to the rapidly suburbanizing Sunbelt regions of the US. Not only did cheaper land exist there to expand operations, but these regions also had a more compliant labor force, often hostile to unionism, willing to work for less pay. Some things still hold true: you’ll notice little union membership at your suburban Denny’s, Wendy’s or Wal-Mart.

And now looking at another characteristic of urban morphology: In the first half of the 20th century industrial plants located in the city had a vertical orientation which later shifted to a horizontal one as plants moved to suburbia. The brilliance of Henry Ford’s philosophy — Fordism — was the centralization, rationalization and integration of all operations under one roof. However, as corporations grew, and industrial processes became more complex, companies compartmentalized their operations at different locations and moved from the city because there was no room for expansion. They shifted instead to horizontal building configurations as it became less expensive to produce and ship goods in one-story buildings. This is why so much of sprawl has a horizontal look. It’s a very efficient building form.

III. Commercial Zones


Active Main Streets & Central Business Districts

These next images are from local downtown central business districts. They illustrate a commercial business atmosphere that existed prior to the growth of national chain stores — chain stores that brought with them a homogenizing influence on American consumer culture and the man-made landscape.

These business districts were vernacular “everyday” landscapes grounded in an economic reality having to do with simple utility and function, instead of rampant consumerism. At least that’s how I remember it. This universe, unlike the suburbanize one that supplanted it, was at a pedestrian scale and not necessarily centered on the automobile.

In addition, we need to think about financial and taxation issues. Historically, locally owned downtown businesses paid local taxes; money generated from that business stayed in town and re-circulated there. With sprawl and the growth of multinational chains the majority of what you spend at Wal-Mart today gets sent back home to a out-of-state home office or funneled through tax shelters in Michigan, Delaware or Nevada — states that charge no corporate income tax.

The big box store has also gotten tax subsidies and rebates from local and federal government, meaning they don’t contribute to local tax rolls or the maintenance of local infrastructure in any meaningful way, but you can bet the owners of local downtown businesses once did. It’s easy to see how corporate sprawl negatively impacts community networks and makes a mockery of civic responsibility.

Suburban Strip Malls, Big Boxes, and Fast Food


So eventually we got here. As the suburbs grew in the 1950s and 60s along with a burgeoning consumer culture, Americans decided that they didn’t need to go downtown anymore. The suburbs became cities unto themselves, were predominantly white, and offered many of the same amenities as the city but without the congestion, crime and poverty.

The price we pay for all these shopping centers and outlet malls is that every day in America 5000 acres of undeveloped land — mostly agricultural — disappears under concrete and asphalt. This means about two million acres of open space are gobbled up by development every year in the United States.

This is a new Superstore going up on former farmland in Indiana. And here’s an image of more farmland adjacent to the superstore that eventually gets converted to yet another strip or outlet mall. Built space often expresses a society’s material and political priorities. I also wanted to include these abandoned drive-in movie theaters into our discussion; the land many of these sat on got converted into big boxes or shopping malls, which shows you how land use changes over time. A viable business supplants a failed one. This process is called “creative destruction.”

Here are more images of what I’ve termed the “franchised landscape” of sprawl. I’ve included them as a visual contrast to the older downtown environments you saw a few slides back and the other abandoned retail venues we’ll see in a few moments. Dolores Hayden makes no distinctions about sprawl having to be in metropolitan areas—it can be in rural settings too. She derides policy-makers that have no consideration for either the aesthetic or socio-economic costs of sprawl. You can also see how the shift of retail trade from urban areas to the periphery caused the desecration of some very pristine natural landscapes—an issue adeptly addressed by the New Topographics photographers.

Franchised Landscape 20, Colorado 2006

Here in a narrow Colorado canyon with the Rocky Mountains all around, a group of big box stores had colonized the valley.


For the last 12 years, I’ve been actively incorporating sprawl’s everyday monoculture landscape into my work along with my inner city material. The garish semiotics of corporate America are the visual trademarks of sprawl but they also bear a direct relationship to these skeletal remains of signs from once thriving inner city businesses that have been supplanted by chain stores out on the edge of town.

Abandonment in the CBD: Zone of Discard

When witnessing abandoned central business districts around the United States, we ponder the impact the 50-year build out of suburban shopping malls, freeways and national chains has had on commerce in older city centers. In 1954 downtown retail sales accounted for over 50% of the nationwide metropolitan total; by 1977 that number had dwindled to less than 5%. It’s something like 1% now. Sprawl without a doubt sped the erosion of downtown retailing.

Cleared lot on former central business district along Broadway, Gary, Indiana 2000

This is an abandoned streetscape of Gary, Indiana’s former business district on Broadway. Urban geographers call this a “zone of discard.”

Here’s a neighborhood scene in Detroit that represents the disparity of how tax dollars are spent in cities and suburbs. By the way suburbs usually get the lions share of federal subsidy. You’ll also recall Bush’s infamous LEAVE NO CHILD BEHIND program — public policy reduced to a slogan. Revenue for education is directly derived from local tax bases. In the inner city with its low-income population, depressed property values, and little to almost non-existent manufacturing or commercial activity there isn’t much of a tax base. In fact the city of Detroit, where this image was taken, is looking at a projected 200 million dollar deficit for fiscal 2008-2009. Interestingly, nearby white municipalities, like Ferndale and Grosse Point, both seven miles away, don’t have deficits.

Dolores Hayden again reminds us that although sprawl may be most obvious to the eye at the periphery of a metropolitan region—where speculative new construction is common — older downtowns also reveal sprawl because in an economy organized around new construction and rapid obsolescence, existing places are often left to fall apart. Many inner city mom and pop stores succumb to the forces of sprawl and disinvestment; abandon storefronts and small businesses abound in inner city areas.

IV. Residential Zones




New suburban housing construction in the 1950s also had a huge impact on inner city areas, fostering white flight from the urban core. This is Daly City, California (above). I’ve included this section for contrast as well. This was a suburb built by Henry Doelger beginning in the late 1940s. Doelger adopted industrial rationalization techniques: he graded his own land; employed in-house architects; milled his own wood; used standardized floor plans; and had an organized workforce based on assembly-line concepts. These technological innovations in mass production used for building homes for mass consumption were Fordism concepts applied to the housing market. In addition low-interest government-backed FHA loans, which came into existence in the 1930s, also paved the way for the creation of suburbia. People for the first time could buy a house on time and pay it off in 30 years.

Notice the garage integrated right into the design of the house; this type of home reinforced individual automobile usage and discourage pedestrian activity; people could drive right into their home without interacting with their environment, which is totally different then living in the city.

US population doubled between 1910-1960 so it’s understandable why suburbia happened — there was a need to house all those people. Home ownership increased in the US by 50% between 1948 and 1973; again there’s a direct correlation to these figures when we look at population loss in our cities over the same time span.

Dyer, Indiana (above) is 15 miles from Gary, Indiana. These two places show the blatant economic and racial inequality that exists spatially in our country even in locations close to one another. Dolores Hayden thinks sprawl causes social injustice in America as it intensifies the disadvantages of class, race, gender and age by adding this spatial separation.

So much of the built environment of suburbia seems to be about order, uniformity and safety: the antithesis of inner city America — a place that seems to be about chaotic liveliness. Federal Housing policy actually favored whites over African-Americans when the FHA mortgage program was inaugurated in 1934. This policy had devastating effects in terms of segregation, as you can image given the fact that mostly white families could afford to move out of crowded urban areas to the periphery, essentially abandoning the inner city to African-Americans.

Inner City

Many urban areas were redlined; no bank would loan money to buy businesses or homes, and no insurance company would insure the property. Because of these discriminatory practices it was harder for blacks to get mortgages or borrow capital to start businesses. This negative impact of redlining affected upkeep — absentee landlords who saw real estate values plummet due to red-lining wouldn’t bother to maintain their properties. So began the long, slow decline of inner city America, a location filled with minority residents who lived in substandard dwellings, endured declining employment opportunities and faced severe housing shortages.

One of the solutions to the inner city housing problem, or so thought the government, was to erect public housing, like the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. This was low-income public housing based on Le Corbusier’s Radiant City concepts. These concepts, when interpreted by city planners in the 1940s and 50s to house the urban poor, produced results that were the opposite of his intentions: the high rises were horrible and dangerous places to live. Social engineering factored into freeway construction in metropolitan areas during the 1950s also. The freeway, by its mere creation, became a barrier to cordon off one part of the city from the Other. Freeway’s also played a key role in urban renewal: many slum areas in cities (usually housing the urban poor) were systematically chosen as the pathways for the new Interstate system. This in turn also fueled inner-city housing shortages, which further enhanced white flight to new homes in suburbia.

Public housing came in several forms: this is in Atlanta, and here’s abandoned public housing in Cleveland.

Fire-damaged house and backyard along Eight Mile Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 2008

And Detroit where it’s estimated there are 16,000 buildings awaiting demolition.

I want to point out, however, that it’s not all bleak. The demolition / renewal going on in the Hough district of inner city Cleveland these past fourteen years is part of a larger civic-minded revitalization saga that speaks to the relationship between suburbia and the urban core. It goes like this: James Rouse, who grew up in Cleveland was a principle developer of suburban shopping malls in America, building his first shopping mall in 1958 in Maryland. His intention was to create new town centers with these shopping malls, but instead his work hastened the build-out of suburbia across America, draining city cores of their retail trade and civic life while initiating white flight to new housing in the suburbs. Feeling deeply responsible for the unintended consequences of his development activities — and it’s nice to see a developer with a moral compass — he and his wife formed a non-profit organization in 1979 in Cleveland and raised millions of dollars, seeding partnerships with other community developers addressing the need for affordable housing in inner city neighborhoods. His legacy continues today.

Along these same lines sometimes new fortified homes made out of cinder block spring up in sparsely populated urban neighborhoods. Erected in the last few years, you’d term the owner an urban pioneer. As demolition takes place in the inner city more open space emerges and nature reasserts itself—a “green ghetto” develops, which was a termed coined by Camillo Vergara, a photographer that has had a huge impact on my photography and thinking.

V. Further Impacts of Sprawl on Urban Morphology

County Jails

Often disguised as office buildings, inner city jails and prisons are often hard to detect. As you can imagine suburbanites often take a NIMBY or LULU position on this issue, not wanting anything to adversely affect local property values. NIMBY by the way stands for NOT IN MY BACK YARD and the lesser-know acronym LULU stands for LOCALLY UNWANTED LAND USE.

Placing jails and prisons in impoverished urban municipalities — where open land due to white flight and deindustrialization is plentiful and cheap — seems to be the new trend. Many struggling rust belt cities such as Youngstown, Ohio, have actively courted companies like the Corrections Corporation of America, which has built three prisons there, all to boost local tax revenue and create jobs. But that’s a head fake too: many of the prisons are so automated it takes few people to run them. Social justice advocates call this siting of jails in inner city areas “environmental racism” because these kinds of industries are usually placed in lower-income neighborhoods where residents have little political power to block their construction.

VI. Creative Responses within the Inner City Environment


Having photographed in inner city environments for over 15 years it dawned on me recently that — despite all the destitution and abandonment — there was liveliness there that’s missing in the more regimented suburban environments we encounter every day. In fact it is was a landscape filled with political and vernacular artistic expression. The first time my wife and I went to Detroit we found ourselves in the Ravenswood neighborhood, and noticed that brightly colored dots covered a lot of abandoned buildings. Doing research we later discovered this was the work of the artist Tyree Guyton. Moreover, Guyton’s dots blanketed the city, calling attention to abandoned buildings, dis-investment and neglect. These dots, for him, symbolized the notion that people of all colors are responsible for the landscapes we inhabit, the landscapes that comprise our society at all income levels.

In conclusion, I don’t think we can overlook sprawl’s negative socio-economic impact on urban America over these past 50 years. We’ve seen tax resources or rebates that favor suburban enclaves and institutions over inner city ones, and land-use policies that support new development in suburbia over true revitalization efforts downtown, especially in areas of chronic poverty and destitution. Inner city populations have had to endure bad housing, job loss, and under-funded schools for far too long. While not every inner city social ill can be directly traced to the advent of sprawl, so many of the properties inherent in late industrial and consumer capitalism that fueled sprawls’ contagious growth to begin with, have surely been contributing factors.

Can there be new government policies implemented, and infrastructure projects started that aren’t just window-dressing, that will help reinvent our cities as vibrant realms of the public sphere? Can cities rebirth quality jobs and educational facilities that once helped create a robust middle-class culture — a middle-class life that expressed its collectivism via unions and a “street life” — the antithesis of suburban alienation and isolation? Without a doubt some industrial cities of the Northeast have made a comeback in the last decade; but the lingering social and economic injustices — especially for people of color — still need to be addressed in a real way.


Beauregard, Robert A. When America Became Suburban,
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Hayden, Dolores. A Field Guide to Sprawl, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.

Ingersoll, Richard. Sprawltown, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006

Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of Urban Crisis: Race and Equality in Postwar Detroit,
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Banham, Rayner. Concrete Atlantis: U. S. Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989

Vergara, Camillo. The New American Ghetto, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 1995

Brouws, Jeff. Approaching Nowhere, New York: W. W. Norton, 2006

Jeff Brouws is the author of seven books including his most recent Approaching Nowhere published by
W. W. Norton in 2006. His photographs can be found in major private and public collections including the Whitney Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Princeton University Art Museum, and the Henry Art Museum.

All images copyright Jeff Brouws

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Posted in Documentary Photography, Essays, Race & Class and tagged , , .